STEM Lesson Planning

Alissa Lange - Laura Robertson - Jamie Price and Annie Craven


NGSS Terms to know

SEPs- Science and Engineering Practices, activities of scientists and engineers and that we want students to engage with as they are learning and doing science.

CCC- Crosscutting Concepts– have application across all domains of science. As such, they are a way of linking the different domains of science.

DCI –Disciplinary Core Ideas– focuses on science curriculum, instruction, and assessment on the most important aspects of science or “the big ideas” of science.

PEs –Performance Expectations– integrate the three-dimensions of the NGSS (DCI, SEP, and CCC). as a summary of what students should be able to complete if they have mastered the standard.

“From its inception, one of the principal goals of science education has been to cultivate students’ scientific habits of mind, develop their capability to engage in scientific inquiry, and teach them how to reason in a scientific context.” (NRC, 2012).

The Framework for K-12 Science Education Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas was used to develop the national standards in science, as noted previously. The Tennessee Academic Standards for Science are also based on these national standards and this underlying framework. The Framework for K-12 Science Education focuses on fewer core ideas than did past standards, in order to avoid the coverage of multiple disconnected topics, which is referred to as a “mile wide and an inch deep” (p. 25; National Research Council, 2012). This means that too many different topics used to be covered in science education, which meant that students had to do a lot of memorization in order to keep up. Since we now want students to spend more time exploring phenomena and related concepts directly for themselves, engaging in the activities that scientists do, more time per concept is needed. Thus, having fewer concepts to learn allows for deeper engagement over time with the concepts that are included for a given grade. The introduction of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and the Tennessee state math standards echoes this effort. In order to help students to develop deeper conceptual understandings and procedural fluency with math, students spend time exploring ideas and making connections to make sense of the mathematics.

  • The Framework for K-12 Science describes the following three dimensions of science education, which are important in understanding the NGSS and State standards: Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), and Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs), and Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs). Each of these components can be understood as working together to comprise the standards, in terms of what we want students to know or understand, and what we want them to be able to do. It is recommended that you download or access this resource online.

 A Framework for K-12 Science Education proposes a new approach to K-12 science education that will capture students’ interest and provide them with the necessary foundational knowledge in the field.

Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs).

The NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) describe the activities of scientists and engineers and that we want students to engage with as they are learning and doing science. Each practice includes a host of specific skills. For example, developing and using models requires that a student understands what is a model, what makes a good model, knows how to use them. In science education, the focus should be on supporting students’ scientific thinking rather than on memorizing facts and information. Bybee’s 2011 article includes descriptions of how the practices below translate for young children. The practices are:

  1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  2. Developing and using models.
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data.
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating  information

For new science educators, the practices can at first seem intimidating. Their language is not always clear nor their implications for young students. All of SEPs can be used with students as young as preschool. The language of the practices may be adapted for younger students, and it can be helpful to give students examples of what the practice might look like in their classrooms. In a kindergarten classroom, a teacher might ask students “How can we test this?” thus, leading students through the practice of planning and carrying out investigations. In a unit on floating and sinking (TN K.PS1.2), the class discussion might result in students selecting a tub, filling it with water with help from an adult, selecting items to test, and dropping items into the water to see if they sink or float.

Crosscutting concepts (CCCs).

“Crosscutting concepts have application across all domains of science. As such, they are a way of linking the different domains of science.” (REF). These concepts can help students see how the concepts (DCIs, below) are interrelated. A webpage with definitions is available online, along with a document available for free download from NSTA. The document includes definitions and examples of what each crosscutting concept look like across grade bands in elementary school.

  1. Patterns
  2. Cause and Effect
  3. Scale, Proportion, and Quantity
  4. Systems and System Models
  5. Energy and Matter
  6. Structure and Function
  7. Stability and Change

Similar to the SEPs, the crosscutting concepts can, at first glance, be overwhelming to new science educators, and their language may be adapted when working with young students. For example, when addressing the crosscutting concept of scale, proportion, and quantity a teacher might use phrases like “how big” or “how many”. The CCCs are powerful ideas that young students can and should be introduced to in an age-appropriate manner. . Matrix of Cross Cutting Themes

Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs).

The DCIs focus on science curriculum, instruction, and assessment on the most important aspects of science or “the big ideas” of science. These ideas are grouped into four domains, including the physical sciences, the life sciences, the earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology, and application of science.

Habits of the Mind

Habits of mind and approaches to learning are critical to young students’ abilities to thrive in early and elementary science and STEM education. And they are valuable outside of these areas too! Habits of mind (HOM) have been connected to skills that current students will need as our society becomes increasingly technological. One version of HOM includes 16 of them, like persistence and thinking flexibly (description here).  Approaches to learning both incorporate and support habits of mind. Their importance is supported by the fact that the most recent national math and science standards both dedicate sections of their frameworks to these aspects of teaching and learning, even though they may not be explicit components of the standards themselves.

Because they are so important, we include some information about a few aspects here. However, there are more to these than we have space to include, and your professors may assign additional readings and activities to expand your thinking and reflections about them. Before you can support strong habits of mind, approaches to learning in your future students, you have to at least reflect on them in yourself as a learner (even if you do not feel they are fully developed!). Take a moment and reflect on the following questions before you continue reading. Write your answers down, so you can refer back to them in the following sections.

  • What does it mean to be a flexible thinker?
  • Do you view yourself as a flexible thinker?
  • Can you remember a time when you changed your thinking/position on an idea based on new learning?
  • Do you think of yourself as particularly good or bad at science or math?
  • Do you think all children are naturally curious?

Mindsets. Do you think that someone is born either intelligent or not intelligent? Do you think that intelligence is fixed? If you do, you may have a fixed mindset. If you believe that actually we can change intelligence, we can impact our performance and skills by practice and by making mistakes and learning from them, you may have a growth mindset. Carol Dweck popularized these ideas in her work and research related to the impact of our mindsets on learning, teaching, and even performance in sports. We can think about how mindsets might apply to early and elementary science, math, and integrated STEM thinking and learning.

Curiosity. This may not be the first attribute you think about when you think about teaching science to your future students. But imagine what it is like to learn complex and sometimes abstract concepts about our world or universe, if you are not interested or curious. How can we encourage students to engage with doing the work to find out for themselves if the eraser will fall at the same rate as the textbook, if they are not curious about the phenomenon? Not all students will be curious about all the science topics you cover in a year, but if you figure out what they are curious about, that can be a starting point. If you figure out what YOU are curious about, and try to model that for them, you may be surprised at how your students’ curiosity grows. For example, in a unit on observable patterns caused by the earth’s rotation around the sun (TN 4.ESS1.2), a teacher might begin by asking students if their shadows are always the same length. She might follow-up by providing students with chalk and time outside at different times of the day to trace their shadows. Student observations of the phenomenon of changes in shadow length could lead to discussions of other patterns caused by the earth’s orbit around the sun, further explorations, and the development of models. This would likely be a more engaging approach to the topic than with a reading from a textbook and study of a figure showing the earth’s movement around the sun. Most children are born curious (and thus driven to learn from birth!), but it is also the onus of educators to nurture and sustain that curiosity – it is one of the primary drivers of science exploration. How has curiosity driven your own learning?

(Lange, Robertson, Price, Craven, 2022)

Performance Expectations (PEs)

The Performance Expectations (PEs) utilize the three dimensions of the NGSS as a summary of what students should be able to complete if they have mastered the standard. The performance expectations integrate the three-dimensions of the NGSS (DCI, SEP, and CCC); each performance expectation contains at least one disciplinary core idea, science and engineering practice, and cross cutting concept.

Reading and interpreting the Next Generation Science Standards will take time and practice.   A great way to begin understanding the new standards is to read the document A Framework for K-12 Science Education (free pdf download at: ), a text which provides an overview, vision, goals, research base, and further explanation of each of the three dimensions.  A Framework to K-12 Science Education provides a solid foundation for the Next Generation Science Standards; it is critical to reading, interpreting, and applying the new standards in elementary science settings.

(Neal, n.d.)

NGSS Progression

The NGSS is structured into grade bands that build off of each other. As students’ progress through each of the grades, the topics continuously advance in complexity. The science concepts start with a basic foundation where students focus on science phenomena that they can interact with using their senses. As students progress through the grade levels the science concepts go deeper to where students are not only using their senses, but also enhancement of their senses to explain science phenomena. If you look at the grade bands, you are able to see this progression through the grades. It is important to look at the standards in all grades to help you build content for your students in your classroom grade level, and to prepare the students to learn beyond your classroom in other grade levels. The teacher talk boxes throughout the book will allow you to gain understanding of the NGSS progression through biology and chemistry content.

(Next Generation Science Standards, 2021)

How to Read the Next Generation Science Standards (6:51 minutes)

[Achieve], (2016). How to Read the Next Generation Science Standards


Lange, Alissa A.; Robertson, Laura; Price, Jamie; and Craven, Amie. 2021. Teaching Early and Elementary STEM. Johnson City: East Tennessee State University.

Neal, T. (n.d..) Elementary Science Methods, from  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Elementary Science Methods Copyright © 2023 by Alissa Lange - Laura Robertson - Jamie Price and Annie Craven is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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